Dark Souls is in many ways the prototypical video game. When you first boot it up, there is a grand cinematic explaining the scope and breadth of the narrative universe – there is a god of lightning, a lord of death, a fire witch, a dragon, an epic battle! It’s all very dramatic and cinematic, and then
The player character is in a dungeon for some reason, and an unknown NPC throws down a key so as to make a timely escape possible. What follows is a period of getting used to the controls, possibly dying once or twice (the big boulder is a contender for this outcome), and an indirect lesson that sometimes you are not ready to fight the big demons just quite yet. The broken sword you begin with might be thematically proper, but something more pointy is required for actual combat. Thus players are introduced to the concepts of switching to appropriate gear and running past enemies, as need be.
When looking at gameplay after this point, what is striking is that so much of it conforms to the image of video games kids have. The player character is a dude (or dudette) with a sword, who fights generic enemies (whose individuality can be safely ignored) and bosses (whose uniqueness make their backstories as interesting as their fighting techniques). All this in a setting steeped with backstory, lore and hidden secrets, who can be uncovered by players enthusiastic and determined enough to give it a go.
In other words, it is very much like when we were young and played early NES games. The graphics were pixelated to perfection, and the physical cartridges the games came on barely fit enough information to convey any narrative information outside the mechanics. Each and every pixelated enemy had a name, a backstory and a place in the universe. And, more importantly, an entry in the manual that came in the box – lovingly crafted to ensure the differentiation of one colored set of pixels from an identical albeit differently colored set of pixels. The Goombas and Bullet Bills had canonical names, and all the implied narrative infrastructure that comes from having a name.
In those archaic pre-internet days, this narrative infrastructure turned into local myths and legends. Part of it came from simply informing everyone involved about the facts – given time and enough double-checking of the manual, soon enough the Bowsers and the Lakitus were known entities. An even bigger part came from the telling and retelling of ideas of how the implied, never shown but carefully named, kingdoms or future settings had to be organized. The world of Super Mario had a princess and a whole series of monarchs being turned into various creatures, establishing that the mushroom kingdom was indeed a magical kingdom. The world of Mega Man implied a whole host of futuristic machines subverted to the twisted ways of Dr Wily, and so a setting could be imagined around that. And so on and so forth.
Given the lack of available textual information (the manual was only so large, and the cartridge could only contain so many bits), there was plenty of room for imagination and extrapolation. Indeed, even speculation. Many a friend group had informal theories of what may or may not have transpired – I dare not call them fan theories, lest the gamers grow restless – some of which are still remembered fondly to this day. These theories served as a springboard and expression for young imaginative minds, and as an informal social glue in a time when such things were rare indeed. If you ever get the chance, do probe someone about their childhood imaginings of these virtual worlds. There is more there than might meet the eye.
When I say that Dark Souls is a prototypical video game, I mean that it harkens back to this earlier era of mythological expansion and exegesis. An enemy is not just an enemy – they have names and backstories. The bosses are not just slightly tougher enemies – they have intricate relationships with each other and the world they find themselves in. The world is not just something put in place by virtue of the necessity of having to render something on the screen to make the gameplay look appealing – everything is significant, every detail conveys important information, every aspect contributes to the overall story. There is more backstory to be uncovered, and more importantly, more stories to be told. Dark Souls is very good at bringing out the forensic storytellers inside its players.
With the advent of the internet, the social space of this storytelling has shifted from the geographically available friend group to a more global setting. The Dark Souls portion of Youtube has viewerships in the millions, with cooperating and competing exegesists comparing notes. The drive to tell, retell and refine the stories found implied in the games – always implied, just at one remove – is still there, burning like a great bonfire. Or, more accurately, like many small bonfires scattered across the lands.
There are those who speak of Dark Souls only in terms of difficulty, as some great obstacle to be overcome by those worthy enough. While I do acknowledge that this, too, is part of the myth building that eventually leads to storytelling, and that there are parallels to the whole Nintendo Hard thing, I must say that such simplistic takes miss the point. If difficulty is your only point of reference for talking about the game, then I am sad to inform you that you have officially failed at Dark Souls.
Take heart, however, for there is always an opportunity to play again. The age of fire is still with us, for a brief time longer. A new game awaits, and new stories. Tell them well.